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What the Dancers Always Knew

[Kronstam died May 28, 1995. On June 2, 1997, the dancers gave him an Evening of Remembrance in Copenhagen (organized by Peter Bo Bendixen). This piece was written for that occasion and appeared in the program book.—A.T.

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In New York on the standing room line, Henning Kronstam was known as “The Most Gorgeous Man Ever To Grace the Ballet Stage.” His image as Ashton’s passionate, innocent Romeo is indelible, and, through photographs, his artistry has touched people who have never been to Copenhagen, who never saw him dance. He has always been highly regarded in America although, many dancers feel, not nearly as highly as he deserved. He made his debut as James on the opening night of the Royal Danish Ballet’s first American tour in 1956 when he was twenty-two, and carried the season. Critic John Martin singled him out in a New York Times Sunday piece assessing the company, writing: “He is handsome, tall, admirably in command of his body; his technique is strong, with notable elevation, and a line that is lyric without being weak. He has an intuitive dramatic sense, reacting automatically to the scene about him, and allowing his feeling to show in his face without a trace of mugging. Obviously, he has everything in his favor, and if before he is thirty he is not one of the great male dancers of his time, it will be very surprising indeed.”

Kronstam did become one of the great dancers of his time, and his was a time rich in great dancers. He was especially admired for his extraordinary dramatic range, and he became so identified in dramatic roles that some forget what a first-rate dancer he was. Dancers haven’t. “He was one of the best dancers I have ever seen by any standard, even with the Danes. Technically, he was able to do absolutely anything,” said the French ballerina and New York City Ballet star Violette Verdy, who danced with Kronstam in France in the mid-1950s. Dancers—American, French, English, and Russian—admired Kronstam for his classical purity and for his artistry. Some pinned pictures of him on their dressing room mirrors as a reminder of what classical dancing could be. At his death, the New York Times wrote that Kronstam was a “dancer’s dancer,” and that would have pleased him, for he thought praise by other artists the sweetest of all.

He danced with the leading ballerinas of his generation—Antoinette Sibley, Carla Fracci, and Marcia Haydee, in addition to Verdy; danced at the great European summer Festivals; danced as a guest with the Stuttgart and DeCuevas ballets; danced with Inge Sand’s group in Britain and Latin America; danced (with Kirsten Simone) on American television; danced, again with Simone, across America with Ruth Page’s Chicago Opera Ballet, one of the companies that brought ballet to the cities outside New York and helped ignite America’s ballet boom. He enjoyed touring, enjoyed meeting new people and dancing before different audiences, but the most important work of his career was done at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen.

It was in Copenhagen that Kronstam found what the itinerant superstars of the day craved: a treasure chest of created roles. Choreographers liked working with Kronstam because his ego never got in the way of the creative process, and in this he was without rival. As the American choreographer Glen Tetley put it: “As a dancer, Henning had the ability to transform himself in the roles he did. He was not like the international stars who transformed the role into their persona. It was always Erik Bruhn. It was always Rudolf Nureyev. Henning, in every way, was a star, a first-class dancer, but he did not trade on the star persona. I never thought of him as an exhibitionist dancer. He was not merely someone entertaining the eye alone. There was a soul there always, in what he did.”

Kronstam worked with the great choreographers of the day—Ashton, Balanchine, Robbins, Cranko, Tudor, Petit—and many choreographers tried to lure him away. He admired Balanchine and was tempted to accept an invitation to join New York City Ballet, but didn’t want to limit himself to working with a single choreographer, even one so distinguished. “If I had gone with Balanchine,” he said, “I would have missed two-thirds of my career.” He felt that no other company could match his Danish repertory, a fact which was unintentionally underlined by Lucia Chase (Artistic Director of American Ballet Theater) who tried to entice him to New York with the possibility of dancing, among other works, Moon Reindeer. “Do you know the ballet?” she wrote. Of course, Kronstam had created the role of Nilas in that ballet and did not have to cross an ocean to dance it.

His dancing was intimate, intense, subtle, perfectly suited to this beautiful, intimate theater, and he shaped his dancing for this theater and for this audience. When he directed the company, he chose repertory that would suit the talents of his dancers and the tastes of this house, and he often gave “I knew it would be good for our audience here” as the reason he took a ballet into the repertory.

After he left the stage, he continued dancing in the studio, teaching, coaching young dancers, staging ballets; it was now his turn to stretch others, and there are literally dozens of dancers who credit Kronstam as the most formative influence on their careers. He now brought the world to the young dancers as his teacher, Vera Volkova, had done for him when he was young. He had staged the company’s classical and international repertory since the mid-1960s, and was one of a handful of great instruktørs in the world. He could reproduce choreography meticulously, and then breathe life into it. Choreographers knew this, and relied on his sure taste and sense of style, often allowing their works to be danced in Copenhagen because they knew Kronstam would take good care of them. For nearly thirty years, he was the company’s unheralded secret weapon, and few realized that the dancers’ sweet, melodious dancing and passionate performances of dramatic ballets resulted from Kronstam’s work in the studio. Only the dancers knew. “He was the glue that held the company together,” Ib Andersen said. “He was the only reason the Danish ballet held on to its international reputation as long as it did.”

It is often said that the memory of a dancer begins to fade as soon as the curtain falls on his last performance, but that need not always be so. A rare few live on in the dancing of their pupils. And so you will see Henning Kronstam dance in this theater tonight, see him in the way a head is turned and an arm extended, see him in the deep richness of a plié before a jump and in the quiet landing after it. This is not because the performers dance in imitation of him, but because they absorbed his style and his approach to dancing as they were growing. For many of them, women as well as men, Henning Kronstam defined what it meant to be a dancer, and he will dance here as long as any of those he shaped still dance in this house.